REVIEW: “Project Power”

I love a good twist on a familiar trope. We see so many superhero movies these days that it’s hard for any of them to feel particularly unique. It’s not as simple as just making a serious one or a comedic one; you have to find a new twist to explore with superheroes, otherwise, it just feels like more of the same. This is where Project Power comes in. Premiering recently on Netflix, Project Power is a superhero movie that focuses less on the super-heroics of the story and more on how individual characters might react to living in a world where superpowers are not only common but easy to obtain. It’s a new spin on a familiar genre that prioritizes the voices of characters often underrepresented in the world of superheroes, and it’s well worth a watch. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There may be mild spoilers for Project Power. You have been warned.)

Project Power (written by Mattson Tomlin, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)
On the streets of New Orleans, word begins to spread about a mysterious new pill that unlocks superpowers unique to each user. The catch: You don’t know what will happen until you take it. While some develop bulletproof skin, invisibility, and super strength, others exhibit a deadlier reaction. But when the pill escalates crime within the city to dangerous levels, a local cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) teams with a teenage dealer (Dominique Fishback) and a former soldier fueled by a secret vendetta (Jamie Foxx) to fight power with power and risk taking the pill in order to track down and stop the group responsible for creating it.

The thing that makes Project Power work so well is where it puts its focus. It would’ve been easy for a movie like this to get lost in its premise – there is this mysterious drug (named Power) on the streets that, when taken, gives the user superpowers for five minutes. A lesser movie could’ve easily gotten lost in the minutiae of all that, focusing too much on who created it and why. Instead, Project Power focuses on an intimate story between a father looking for his daughter, a young teenage girl trying to find her way in the world, and a cop who is just trying to do the right thing. The movie focuses on the humanity of this premise and of specific people living in this world instead of on the science fiction of it all, and it benefits greatly from it. After all, it’s much easier to sympathize with a character’s journey than it is to sympathize with an idea.

We first meet Robin, played by Dominique Fishback, a teenage girl trying to make some money to pay for her sick mother’s treatment by selling Power. One of her semi-regular customers is Frank, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a cop who uses Power to take down criminals who have also used the drug. Robin and Frank have an interesting dynamic, with Frank feeling paternal toward Robin but being content with using her to further his agenda. Robin soon comes into contact with Art (Jamie Foxx), a former army major trying to rescue his daughter from the creators of Power. It is Robin and Art’s story we follow for the bulk of the film. Art starts out as a pretty standard antihero; I mean, he literally kidnaps Robin to find out what she knows about the distributors and creators of Power. It takes a while for both Robin and the audience to warm up to him, but eventually, we do. 

It felt kind of gutsy to focus so heavily on these characters, but it gives the film a kind of structure that keeps the tension high. There are stakes at play and we’re invested enough in these characters to feel the tension that they’re feeling. The character arcs are not necessarily anything unique, but they’re executed very well. Frank is probably a bit underserved when compared to Art and Robin, but the three characters work well together and they make for a compelling team. A lot of this comes down to how well-performed they are. Foxx and Gordon-Levitt are unsurprisingly good here, each committing wholly to this premise and their characters. But Fishback is the standout here. She’s given a lot to do; getting to jar against and bounce off of actors like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt must be lots of fun, but she holds her own against them. From her first moment on screen, you’re immediately on board with her. You sympathize with her and you want things to work out for her. It’s a great performance and I’m excited to see what she does next. 

This is the kind of movie that you’d think might demonize people of color and/or the lower class. I mean, it’s a movie set in an urban location, revolving around a mysterious drug that seems to be primarily used by criminals. But, surprisingly, screenwriter Mattson Tomlin and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are careful to avoid this trap. It never feels like Project Power is demonizing lower class people or people if color; if anything, it’s demonizing those in power who would seek to exploit these oft-exploited groups. While much of the film focuses on Robin, Frank, and Art’s stories, a good deal is given to exploring the movie’s wider world. We are shown a New Orleans where it makes sense why people might turn to a drug like Power. I wouldn’t say the movie is necessarily a commentary on anything in particular, but it uses its setting very well and feels extremely grounded in reality. The world feels lived in enough that you never find yourself questioning why anything is happening. It feels like the kind of scenario that could happen in a couple of years or so, and that’s neat.

What’s also neat is how good the movie looks. I don’t know what the film’s budget is, but regardless, I’m impressed by the restraint shown by Joost and Schulman. A lot of superhero movies end up being a CGI-ridden mess, but the duo takes care to ensure Project Power remains grounded. That’s not to say that there’s a lack of CGI or action scenes. It’s just that most of the action scenes are easy to follow and have weight to them and that the CGI is reserved for the moments that need it the most. Additionally, it’s nice to get to see how longterm use of Power might damage a person. Early in the film, we’re introduced to Newt (Machine Gun Kelly), a Power dealer who has the power to turn into a Human Torch-esque character. When we first see him, he’s covered in burn scars. It’s clear that in this world, a person’s usage of superpowers has consequences. It’s a theme that is maintained throughout the film and was so nice to see. The whole film is littered with these kinds of details; it’s what makes the world feel real and lived in. On the whole, Project Power looks as good as it’s written. It’s a well-shot, well-directed film that elevates its material into something truly enjoyable to watch.

At the end of the day, Project Power is a great watch. It takes familiar elements and twists them into something new. It focuses less on the bigger science fiction ideas of the universe and, instead, shines a light on the human stories of its main characters. It’s easy to become invested in the film because the characters are so well-written and performed. We care about them and we care about their stories. Project Power manages to feel both fantastical and grounded at the same time, with the film’s director’s showing restraint in the amount of CGI they used in the film. Ultimately, Project Power is just super enjoyable. It remains refreshing to see a film that centers on characters like Robin and Art instead of what we normally see in mainstream superhero films. It’s exactly the kind of popcorn fun you’d hope it would be and it’s well worth a watch.

4.5 out of 5 wands.

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